PLN Day 87: Scott McDonald and Cole Camplese’s Disruptive Technologies

30 03 2010

At this weekends’ TLT (Teaching With Technology) Symposium at the Penn Stater, I had occasion to attend some terrific workshops, but the session that had me shouting (OK, whispering) “Yes!” and “hallelujah!” like a member of a gospel preacher’s congregation was Scott McDonald and Cole Camplese‘s presentation on disruptive technologies.  I had written about my respect for Scott McDonald’s research and thinking in a previous post.  Camplese is no less than the Director of Education Technology Services at Penn State.  I was struck immediately by the similarities and differences between their course and my own.  They report having achieved something extraordinary, and they were able to produce a lot of concrete examples of their students learning processes, and they describe some challenges and frustrations they have encountered along the way, and they explained how they improved the course the second time around .

Initially, I overhauled my course after having read connectivist manifestos and after watching YouTube videos and reading blogs about PLNs, while McDonald and Camplese began with a different theoretical basis altogether.  They followed Wenger’s Communities of Practice and Clayton M. Christensen’s idea of Disruptive Technologies:  the revolutionary book that will change the way you do business, a term he introduced in his 1995 article Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave, which he co-wrote with Joseph Bower.  Christensen followed up with The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997) and The Innovator’s Solution (thanks Wikipedia).

I have Wikipedia to thank for the following definition:  “Disruptive technology and disruptive innovation are terms used in business and technology literature to describe innovations that improve a product or service in ways that the market does not expect, typically by being lower priced or designed for a different set of consumers.

“In contrast to “disruptive innovation”, a “sustaining” innovation does not have an effect on existing markets. Sustaining innovations may be either “discontinuous” (i.e. “revolutionary”) or “continuous” (i.e. “evolutionary”). Revolutionary innovations are not always disruptive. Although the automobile was a revolutionary innovation, it is not a disruptive innovation, because early automobiles were expensive luxury items that did not disrupt the market for horse-drawn vehicles. The market remained intact until the debut of the lower priced Ford Model T in 1908. . .

“Christensen distinguishes between “low-end disruption” which targets customers who do not need the full performance valued by customers at the high end of the market and “new-market disruption” which targets customers who have needs that were previously unserved by existing incumbents.

“Low-end disruption” occurs when the rate at which products improve exceeds the rate at which customers can adopt the new performance. Therefore, at some point the performance of the product overshoots the needs of certain customer segments. At this point, a disruptive technology may enter the market and provide a product which has lower performance than the incumbent but which exceeds the requirements of certain segments, thereby gaining a foothold in the market.

“In low-end disruption, the disruptor is focused initially on serving the least profitable customer, who is happy with a good enough product. This type of customer is not willing to pay premium for enhancements in product functionality. Once the disruptor has gained foot hold in this customer segment, it seeks to improve its profit margin. To get higher profit margins, the disruptor needs to enter the segment where the customer is willing to pay a little more for higher quality. To ensure this quality in its product, the disruptor needs to innovate. The incumbent will not do much to retain its share in a not so profitable segment, and will move up-market and focus on its more attractive customers. After a number of such encounters, the incumbent is squeezed into smaller markets than it was previously serving. And then finally the disruptive technology meets the demands of the most profitable segment and drives the established company out of the market.

“New market disruption” occurs when a product fits a new or emerging market segment that is not being served by existing incumbents in the industry.”

I see why this theoretical framework could be helpful to describe how technological innovations may be disruptive to teaching methods. If I substitute educational technology  as a disruptive technology and myself as the market for that technology, the results are interesting.

Perhaps educational technology is a classic case of “low-end disruption”:  The rate at which (educational technology) products improves exceeds the rate at which customers (teachers ) can adopt the new performance. At this point, a disruptive technology may enter the market and provide a product which has lower performance than the incumbent but which exceeds the requirements in certain segments, thereby gaining a foothold in the market. (For example, before Web 2.0 made it easier for everybody, I thought some of the tools were pretty clunky, like my students first website and online portfolio projects, which required a lot of tech savvy from me and my students both, but I soldiered on because I liked to see them produce something that would provide me some measure of their progress).  And does technology overshoot the needs of various customer segments?  Probably, because teachers have to examine their own teaching and become aware of the disruptive technology to even consider employing it, and as of now have little incentive or time to do so, since in many cases a teacher must overhaul a course to a considerable extent.

The disruptor (say, a teaching practice that avails itself of advances of technology) is initially focused on the least profitable customer, who is happy with a good enough product.  This type of customer (the teacher who is teaching a highly-rated course for the tenth semester in a row, for instance) is not willing to pay premium for enhancements in product functionality (with educational technology:  investing in software, learning how to use it, setting up multiple accounts, developing workable assessment models, keeping up with students’ blogs and wikis, perhaps emotional premiums, such as weathering complaints from students, growing disoriented, updating a syllabus, and so on).  The disruptor needs to enter the segment where the customer is willing to pay a little more for higher quality (in this case, Web 2.0 tools finally were easy enough for a total amateur to get going rather quickly.  I found it simple to create a good blog and a workable wiki, to set up Ning accounts, to navigate around social networking accounts, and their features enabled me to implement a course of substantially higher quality than the previous semester).

Now here’s the interesting part:  the incumbent (the aggregate of teachers who nay-say, or pronounce technology as a gimmick, and stand fast to standard, business-as-usual teaching) will not do much to retain its share in a not so profitable segment.  This suggests that  innovators should expect to be ignored by “incumbent” practitioners until such time as they feel squeezed into smaller and smaller markets, where all around them teachers’ students begin to demonstrate higher-quality learning and enhanced capabilities as a result of the disruptive technologies, which finally meets the demands of the most profitable segment (the late-adopter) and drives the established company out of the market (when teachers drop the aspects of teaching that aren’t as effective, perhaps surrendering their transmission models, their teacher-centered content delivery approaches, their drill and kill, teach-to-the-test approaches because evidence of the superiority of employing the disruptive technology are widely in evidence at last).

So what are students doing in Scott McDonald’s class?:  They engaged with social theory, they read professional articles, and each student kept a blog.  They are using multiple Web 2.0 tools, but to everyone’s surprise, the class chose Twitter as its go-to tool.  At first, it seemed like “the old social practice of passing notes”, but they found that Twitter became “substantive to the course content.”   In the presentation at TLT, they detailed many of the way they overhauled the course based on feedback and their observations, making significant changes to the course the second time around.  The second time they did not require individual blogs of everyone, for instance.  They discovered that the most exciting work was happening as groups of students used a wiki to formulate blog posts.  In fact, McDonald and Camplese found that the pages of  material in these wiki discussions often proved far more complex and useful than the posts themselves.  You can see these results, plus many more here.

I love the front matter when you click through to the class page:  “With all that in mind, this is a course.  That means we will work together to arrive at goals along the way.  That also means we hope that you realize this isn’t about working to a single endpoint.  We will be doing things that build upon the past and invent new thoughts related to the work we are doing.  Our goals for those participating are to gain a deep appreciation for building learning communities that foster social connections and open knowledge sharing.  Additionally we hope you will work to understand how emergent technologies can be explored, and ultimately exploited, to support new forms of pedagogy.  Through our readings, writing, conversations, and activities we hope you will arrive at our milestones with us.”

Just as in this semesters’ LLED 420 course, we have to work together with my class “to arrive at goals along the way”.  LLED 420 “will not culminate in a single endpoint” either.  Our class is also “focused on building learning communities and open knowledge sharing.”  This sounds a lot like our goal to expand our network of resources and people and to report on our understandings along the way as a part of a connected learning community.

McDonald and Camplese’s course and my LLED 420 right down the hall are really rather similar, even though we were not aware of each other’s methods.  Their theoretical entry point is different, their subject area is different (they are science/education, we are English/education), our starting competencies differ (Scott is a highly early-adopter of technology, I am a late-comer).  Even so, we report similar projects, plenty of exciting results, and we all struggle to fine tune these courses, identify and respond to glitches, and to provide decent assessment models for our students’ progress.   How valuable is this PLN to my own teaching and learning?  Here, just as I’m desperate for some expert feedback, I identified the precise people and resources that I need in order to achieve success.  Scott is meeting with me next Tuesday, as a matter-of-fact.  In my case, I know this course is flying, but I haven’t figured out how to put this bird down without crashing.  Who better than Scott and Cole to mentor me along this journey?




2 responses

30 03 2010

Thanks for all the kind words. Nice to see that there are so many connections between what you are doing and what Cole and I are doing. I think we are getting to the point that there is a real critical mass here at PSU around these tools and how they play in our courses. Should make for an interesting summer.

30 03 2010

Hey Jason,
I just posted a blog over the weekend titled, “Teaching with technology, is it hurting or helping?” I wish I could have attended this symposium that you’ve discussed! It sounds very helpful and informative.

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